Many people suffer from impostor syndrome, but it is especially prevalent in writers, artists, musicians, and many others in creative jobs. Part of the reason? For me, it dates back to high school, when I told my teachers and counselors I wanted to be a writer.
“You’re a creative guy, and you tell a good story,” they told me. Often, this sentence was followed by a chuckle. “But what are you going to do for money?”
Not only was I afraid of being laughed at myself because I certainly wasn’t a good enough writer to “make it” (which I wasn’t—more on that in a moment), but the very idea of writing as a profession itself was laughable.
Several failed careers and an extensive collection of hairnets and name tags later, I decided to follow my own advice and dreams. In the process, I discovered something. No matter how good you get at something, no matter how long you do it, it seems like impostor syndrome never really goes away.
Ten novels in and hundreds of articles later, still the writing process goes something like this:
- Sit down to write, thinking this is the greatest idea ever, and this will be my best work yet
- Halfway through, realize at some point this editor will realize I am a hack, and reject everything I write from now on. After all, why would anyone actually think I am good at this?
- Finish whatever I am working on. Think to myself, “Not bad. Maybe I can keep doing this for another month or so before I have to apply for a “real” job somewhere.
- Send to the editor, and when I get edits back, sit quietly and sob, now knowing for a fact I am horrible, should delete all of my writing from my hard drive, and then start work at Starbucks. What better use is there for a liberal arts degree?
The same goes for every novel and every article. In fact, if I let the impostor syndrome get out of control, damn near every paragraph.
It’s the same with many friends I know, regardless of their profession. “I have an art degree,” says one friend whom we’ll call Tom to protect his privacy. “How am I qualified to manage a marketing department?”
Why is it that we second guess ourselves and who we are, even if we are lucky enough to do jobs we love? Why is impostor syndrome even a thing?
You’re a perfectionist
I’m a perfectionist, a little OCD, but only in certain areas, it turns out. Those areas are actually where I have had the most success. The thing is, as I get better in an area, I typically realize there is so much more I don’t know that I feel like a beginner.
The truth is if you don’t suffer from impostor syndrome, you might be suffering instead from “Dunning-Kruger effect,” which means you have trouble recognizing your own ignorance. This doesn’t mean you are stupid. Far from it. What it means is that you don’t know what you don’t know, a place where many of us find ourselves from time to time.
In my case, I drank a lot of Scotch before I learned how to pronounce the names. Glenmorangie, Glenlivet, Laphroaig, and others remained delicious and unpronounceable. I didn’t recognize that I was pronouncing them wrong until I was presented with the correct pronunciation by someone who really knew.
In addition, sometimes people suffer from optimism bias: they are often late for work and fail to accurately estimate the amount of time it will take to get a job done. Someone suffering from impostor syndrome has the opposite issue, and frequently shows up early and fears they won’t get the job done at all, let alone on time.
This optimism bias often results in procrastination and work that is less than your best.
It’s your parents’ fault
Some studies point to the effect of family dynamics such as your parents being either too strict and not offering you the freedom to fail or far too lenient, allowing you to explore whatever you wanted, but never in depth. In other words, if you have parents, you might suffer from impostor syndrome.
In fact, studies show that 70 percent of people have impostor syndrome and that it is more prevalent in women than men, especially women working in male-dominated career fields. Part of the reason may be that women can’t get away with the same pea-cocking men can, psychologist Hamira Riaz says. They are often expected to downplay their abilities.
However, men are a different story. “My experience it’s not natural for men to admit feelings of discomfort and vulnerability. So you have to dig deeper and work a lot harder to get under their skin,” she says.
Although women have made great strides in the workplace, mostly due to education, they still are often marginalized in male-dominated professions, so impostor syndrome hits them harder than their male counterparts.
This translates to publishing as well, when women write in genres typically dominated by males. In fact, Joanne Rowling (J.K. Rowling) does not even have a middle name, but using her initials was a marketing ploy to make her work more appealing to boys. Female authors are encouraged to take on pseudonyms that sound less feminine and more masculine so they will sell more books.
The same is true when males write in the romance or erotica genre. Never was there a place I felt more like an impostor than when Tirgearr Publishing released my one and only erotica novella (that you know of) titled One Night in Boise. I was lost when it came to promotions and marketing and felt like I had impersonated an erotica author for a short time, and soon readers would find out the truth: not only was I not a good erotica author, but I wasn’t a good author at all.
I’m not saying my gender is entirely my parent’s fault, although their genes certainly play a role. However, my upbringing leaned heavily on standard gender roles, and there certainly wasn’t much I could do more feminine than writing about love, romance, and (gasp!) sex instead of more manly topics.
Your personality traits
Maybe I’m being a bit neurotic here, but that might just be the reason for my impostor syndrome. It’s hard for science to nail down the cause, but apart from genetics and compulsive disorders, some studies show it’s related to your personality type.
Part of being a perfectionist is a desire to control those aspects of your life that you can because you feel out of control in others. In many ways we cannot control what others think of us, so we tend to put up a persona of expertise, hoping no one ever pokes at the mask you wear or sees through it.
Let me make it clear. I am a professional writer. I make a living with words. Oh, sure, I do other things like edit, format books for publication, and a few odds and ends.
Not all of that writing is always what I want to do. I help people create content for their websites and blogs, help them with other technical aspects of the web, and even ghostwrite e-books, case studies, and white papers for businesses.
I don’t always write thrillers. I write about management, business, and being an entrepreneur. (P.S. if you are a writer who wants to sell books and make a living writing, you are an entrepreneur.)
Sometimes you feel like an impostor no matter what is going on around you, simply because you’re human. You can’t escape it all of the time, but you can do some things to snap yourself out of your imposter funk and increase your energy and focus.
- Walk it off: Go walk around your house, your block, your neighbor’s house, wherever. (Warning. Running around your neighbor’s house can turn into a run if they have a large dog you do not know who does not respond to the name on his dog house with anything but a snarl and some sharp, bared teeth.)
- Do stretches or even some yoga: You can even do chair yoga if you don’t want to leave your desk for fear of missing a social media update or an email from your client wondering if you are still working on that project you promised them would be done last week.
- Dance: Air drumming, air guitar, and chair dancing all work for me even when I can’t take an extended break.
This may not be enough to help you. To get over your impostor syndrome you may need to seek professional counseling help to help you determine and conquer the underlying causes.
The main point is that I am a writer. I have the publishing credits and accolades to prove it. There is no one who realistically can tell me I am not a real writer. No one but me.
So next time you feel like you just don’t belong in your current position or like you’re going to be found out and shown the door at any moment, don’t worry. You’re not alone.
Ten novels and hundreds of articles and writing credits later, some days I’m not sure I’m qualified to be a writer at all. In fact, maybe I’ll just delete this article and not send it in.
Somebody might see through my disguise.
This speaks to everything that’s wrong with traditional publishing. The writer is reduced to the position of a powerless supplicant, just when s/he needs to be empowered.
But today, there’s an alternative. You have ten traditionally published novels under your belt. You have a name and a following, one would think. Why not hire your own editor, one who works for you instead of believing you work for him or her? Get your next book in shape and self-publish? I know a whole lot of authors who are doing it, taking their fan bases with them and building on them without gatekeepers putting the artist in thrall.
Thanks for the comment. I am a hybrid author, so I have some self-published novels and some traditionally published. I have hired editors, and I work as a freelance editor.
Still, when I sit down to look at a blank page, even to write articles (and I have written hundreds) or short stories (again, hundreds) I get imposter syndrome.
When I became an associate member of the International Thriller Writers, you would think that would dispell imposter syndrome like clouds on a spring day.
Nope, still suffer.
I blame my dad for sure. When I was in the third grade, he told me my drawing of Ellis Island was ugly. I’ve never been the same since.
Sad semi-jokes aside, I’m actually glad successful writers feel this way too. Is that horrible of me?